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By Debbie le Quesne

Loneliness for over-85s a challenge too big to ignore

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My desk gets full of reports and often getting an overview of some 120-or-so pages demands a shot-cut as time seems to be ever pressing.

I find the Guardian’s Social Care Network is a good staring point, so I dipped to its online stories and found exactly what I was seeking.

Ageing Alone is a new report from thinktank CentreForum and not surprisingly reveals its over-85s who are the worst affected. Nearly half in the study admitted feeling lonely some or all of the time.

With numbers in this age group set to double over the next 20 years, it has to be a priority now.

Writing in the Guardian, James Kempton, associate director, education and social policy at CentreForum, rightly observes that loneliness is expensive to government.

“It is associated with mental health issues, cognitive decline and hypertension. It has been estimated that one in 10 people visit their GP because they are lonely, and research suggests that lonely adults are more likely to undergo emergency hospitalisation and early admission into residential or nursing care,” he says.

Isolation is one issue that residential care is excellent at addressing, but as more elderly stay in community longer, residential care settings will a diminishing impact.

We all see that community-driven initiatives are one way to help and the Kempton piece mentions a few. What interests, and indeed disturbs me most, is that “despite the growing body of evidence, only just over half of the new health and wellbeing boards which have published a joint strategy have acknowledged loneliness and/or isolation.” What!

Accessing community projects can also be a problem for the over-85s, Kempton adds. I quote: . . . even where these kinds of services are available, there are issues about accessing them, which is particularly problematic for over-85s who are often too embarrassed to admit feeling lonely. Four out of five lonely over-85s have not even told their children they are lonely, let alone sought help.”

Domiciliary care workers are often only the real contact that the greater needs of this group of people are being met.

Kempton suggest that one way to improve this “would be to make social contact an explicit part of what care workers offer. This could be supported by some specific training for staff, but more important would be to look at the length of time carers spend with older people. You cannot offer much social contact in a 15-minute visit.”

All of us, if we’re honest, have experienced loneliness at some time. It’s a horrible emptiness that none of us should endure, but with all solutions there’s generally a cost. Can our government afford not to address it with hard cash? Sadly, it appears so.

As Kempton concludes: ”Providing opportunities to become connected is a legitimate role for public policy, although the decision to engage has to be an individual one. The challenge now is to make this a key public health priority and end the postcode lottery that leaves too many people living with the misery of loneliness.”

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